Aviator memorial keeps watchful eye on Naval Air Station pilots from silent perch

By Ed Martin, The Leader Editor
the Navy, family, friends helped to dedicate the Aviators' Memorial on Saturday.
the Navy, family, friends helped to dedicate the Aviators' Memorial on Saturday.
Photo by Bill Burris, Photography for Kings County

Now engrained in the rocky soil of Naval Air Station Lemoore, near the entrance to the Operations Area, where thousands of Naval Aviators have hurled powerful jets into the deep blue skies of the San Joaquin Valley, a special memorial sits atop a marble pedestal, depicting a handsome and majestic aviator, standing alone in a field, gazing longingly at Runway 32L.

The bronze sculpture is meant to honor those special airmen who soared into the sky but failed to return safely home.

The United States Navy and the NAS Lemoore Aviator Memorial Association, on Saturday, unveiled the Aviator Memorial, as an audience of perhaps 400 Navy personnel, civilians, top brass, families and friends, looked on in admiration.

The memorial itself is a 7-foot tall bronze statue that overlooks the air station’s operations area, and is surrounded by memorial grounds, filled with donor bricks of those who donated to the cause or needed to remember a loved one.

In the long history of military aviation, Naval Air Station Lemoore has played an integral part. Many Lemoore Naval aviators have tragically given their lives, whether in combat over the skies of Vietnam or in unfortunate accidents.

Two naval aviators stationed at the air station were inspired to form the NAS Lemoore Aviator Memorial Association last year, in part, to honor their friend and fellow pilot Lt. Matthew Ira Lowe, who was killed on April 6, 2011 while training. Weapons systems operator Lt. Nathan Hollingsworth Williams was also killed in the crash.

Lt. Cmdr. Erik Kenny, an aviator in the VFA-14 “Tophatters” squadron, and fellow aviator and friend Lt. Cmdr. Ben Charles, were spurred to action by the death of their friend, who perished in the accident, and thought it was about time NAS Lemoore created a memorial for those aviators who died while serving here and embarked on a mission to get one created.

When the two officers learned that other Navy bases had memorials, they decided that Lemoore needed one. They received permission from base commander Capt. Monty Ashliman and convinced members of the outside community to join their effort, including Kings County residents Guy Brautigan, Travis Lopes and Charlie Meyer, all of whom formed the non-profit NASL Aviator Memorial Association and set a goal to raise $50,000 for the memorial. They in fact raised over $100,000 since the Association was formed.

“This is actually a mixed emotion, honestly,” said Kenny, who spoke during the dedication ceremony Saturday on a warm, breeze-tinted afternoon. “We’re all here celebrating this beautiful memorial, but in all honestly, I wish we never had to build this. I wish my friend Matt was still here and I wish all the guys that have gone were still all here. I’m saddened by this because it brings back all the memories of my friend Matt, who we lost three years ago.”

While remembering can be difficult, Kenny said the memorial is an important recognition of those who lost their lives while in the line of duty.  “At the same time it is a time to celebrate because of all the hard work that our board and the community put in to make the memorial a reality.”

He went on to say that the memorial could not have happened if the community hadn’t been involved. “Without the local community we’d have another four or five years before this memorial would ever come together,” said Kenny. “So much time, money, and resources were donated, and all the stuff for free, just to make this thing happen. Charlie Meyer, Travis Lopes, and Guy Brautigan; without those three guys we would never be here.”

The afternoon began with the marching in of the colors by the Lemoore High School NJROTC Color Guard, the national anthem sung by Tess Mize, a flyover of three FA-18 Hornets and a rendition of “Taps” by Eagle Scout Roman Benitez. As the jets flew over, the shroud covering the bronze image was removed to reveal the statue. The sculpture was the work of Utah artist Dee Jay Bawden, who was on hand for the unveiling.

The speakers included Capt. David Koss, the Deputy Commander, Strike Fighter Wing Pacific, Kenny, co-founder Lt. Ben Charles, and NAS Lemoore Commanding Officer Monte Ashliman. Charlie Meyer, one of the board members of the ASA, delivered the closing remarks.

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